Have you read this book?
Welcome to Peter Straub’s first collection of stories since his acclaimed Houses Without Doors, released no doubt to capitalize on the success of his recent novel Mr X. Straub is kind of a ‘love him or loathe him’ writer, which figures: there are parts of this collection I adored and parts which I absolutely abhorred.
It begins with ‘Ashputtle’, an unsettling foray into the mind of a self-conscious primary school teacher with a dark secret (People think that if you teach little children, you must love them. People get what they need from thoughts like this.). You’ll figure out what that secret is long before the end of the story, of course – in fact you might even have an idea now – but this is nevertheless an example of how to hint at background and motivation without overdoing it. The ending is also quite chilling, yanking us away from the continuing story at just the right moment.
Next comes ‘Isn’t it Romantic?’ which follows the exploits of a spy rapidly approaching the end of his career. Terrified that his bosses are going to retire him, permanently, he decides to turn the tables on them and finish this last job his way. Straub’s delineation of ‘N’ hits a perfect note, drawing on our recollections of all the old secret agent movies whilst inserting a mounting brutality with each paranoid paragraph (the casual slaughter of a youth he mistakes for his assassin is particularly uncomfortable to read: He pulled the trigger. A hole that looked too small to represent real damage appeared between the kid’s eyebrows at the moment of the soft, flat explosion.). By the end you’re left with no illusions as to the ‘romance’ of such a lone wolf lifestyle.
In ‘The Ghost Village’ Straub revisits Koko territory, with the story of a group of soldiers in Vietnam who come across an abandoned settlement. The underground torture chamber they find (containing small posts and ropes) is the key to why there are spirits here, but the final explanation is given in a very offhand way -almost as an afterthought. Plus the link between what happened at the village and what one of the soldiers is going through himself is pretty labored. That said, there is some great descriptive work: so good, in fact, you can almost picture the jungle and smell the machine-gun oil.
‘Bunny is Good Bread’, meanwhile, shows us the circumstances surrounding one boy’s development into a serial killer. Made to witness his mother’s gradual death (or maybe she’s already dead?) and forced to endure his father’s eccentric rages, there’s little wonder Fee ends up the way he does: the boundaries between reality and fantasy (essentially cinematic fantasy) disintegrating before his eyes. You might have trouble following the narrative at times, particularly when Straub cranks up the surrealism – What is in your mouth is the taste of bread. The taste of bread is warm and silky. To be loved. Charlie in his good suit rides the train, and the girls stare. Bunny is good bread. – but the story does have its rewards.
Unlike ‘Porkpie Hat’, which I first came across in this year’s Mammoth Book of Best New Horror. This reads like two separate stories in one, and never the twain do meet. The first is about a jazz-obsessed student tracking down a legend in the field with the aim of getting an interview. When he eventually does, the tale goes off on a tangent as ‘Hat’ relates a Hallowe’en terror from his past. This would probably have worked better without all the preamble, but as it is ‘Porkpie…’ leaves the reader with the distinct impression that Straub has extended a short to novella length just for the sake of it. However, as I said before of the piece, you can’t help but admire the author’s obvious love of the subject matter, jazz being an obsession of his in real life.
‘Hunger, An Introduction’ is a pretty good ghost story that subtly redefines the nature of this sub-genre. Told in first person, it shrewdly leaves you with just a ‘sense’ of the bigger picture, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget the vignette about the woman killing her baby by dropping it out of a hotel window (What happened to her in the moment she watched her baby fall away toward the Erie Street sidewalk is the reason Ethel Carroway returns to the window on the fourth floor of the Oliphant Hotel.).
Straub winds up the collection with his award-winning ‘Mr Clubb and Mr Cuff’, a revenge tale with a difference. When a wronged husband hires the aforementioned Clubb and Cuff (detectives extroadinnaire) to pay his cheating wife back, he doesn’t expect them to take over his entire life. Like a sadistic version of the ‘Suit You’ tailors from The Fast Show, these two moon-faced, gap-toothed characters elevate this black comedy to another level entirely, one that you will neither expect nor complain about (“Dental floss”, said Mr Clubb, “cannot be overestimated in our line of work. It is the razor wire of everyday life…It has a hundred uses, and a book should be written on the subject.”).
I won’t lie to you, this is not an easy read – in fact on numerous occasions I almost threw it out of the window in frustration. But if you stick with it, Straub will show you things you’ve never seen before, and most likely won’t ever see again. It’s both Magical and Terrifying, in more ways than one.